Friday, November 23, 2007

The Keelmen of Tyne and Wear were a group of men who worked on the keels, large boats that carried the coal from the banks of both rivers to the waiting collier ships. Because of the shallowness of both rivers, it was difficult for ships of any significant draught to move up river and load with coal from the place where the coal reached the riverside. Thus the need for shallow-draught keels to transport the coal to the waiting ships. The keelmen formed a close-knit and colourful community on both rivers until their eventual demise late in the nineteenth century.

Beginnings of the coal trade
The keels were wooden boats with a pointed stern, so that the bow and stern looked almost the same. They were of shallow draught so that when fully loaded they drew only four and a half feet. The keels were forty feet long and at least 19 feet wide amidships: a very broad configuration. In 1266 the standard load of a keel was set at 20 chaldrons (wagonloads) or approximately 17 tons. After 1497 the keel load was frequently increased, until in 1635 it was set at 21.1 tons. A chaldron was a horse-drawn wagon containing 17 cwt of coal. Keels were supposed to be measured by the Kings Commissioners and given a load mark to show when they were full. The keels had a single mast with a square sail attached to a yardarm and two large oars. They had no rudder and so a large sweep was used for steering when the keel was under sail. The oars were used to row when the wind was not favourable. There were also two iron-shod poles for polling the keel through any shallows. The floor of the hold was only two feet below the gunnel to allow for easy loading. The coal was piled high above the top of the hold with wooden boards used to prevent the cargo from sliding. Each keel was manned by a skipper, two crewmen and a boy, known as a 'pee dee'. The meaning of this title is unknown.

The keels
The keelmen would start by loading coal into the hold from a 'spout', as the riverside chutes were called. The keel would then be taken down river on the ebb tide using the oars, or the sail, if the wind was favourable. The keel would then be taken alongside the waiting collier and the crewmen of the keel would carry out the strenuous work of shovelling the coal into the collier, working even after darkness. Because of the difference between the keel's gunnel and the collier's deck, this could be very arduous work. After a time colliers were constructed in such a manner as to make it easier to load coal into them. In 1819 the keelmen went on strike, and one of their demands was an extra shilling per keel for every foot that the side of the collier exceeded five feet. After completing the loading of the coal, the keelmen would return for another cargo, if there was time left in the day and if the tides allowed.

The keelmen
The Tyneside keelmen were employed by the Newcastle Hostmen and were often in dispute with their employers. They went on strike in 1709, 1710, 1740 and 1750. One grievance held by the keelmen was that the Hostmen, in order to avoid custom duties, would deliberately overload the keels. Duty was paid on each keel-load, so that it paid the owner to load as much coal as possible. This meant that the keel-load gradually increased from 16 tons in 1600 to 21.25 tons in 1695. As the keelmen were paid by the keel-load, they had to work considerably harder for the same pay. Even after the keel-load had been standardised, there were cases of keel owners illegally enlarging the holds to carry more coal, as much as 26.5 tons. In 1719 and 1744, the Tyneside keelmen went on strike in protest at this 'overmeasure'. The 1750 strike was also against 'overmeasure', as well as against 'can-money', the practice of paying part of the keelmen's wages in drink that had to be consumed at 'can-houses', pubs owned by the employers.

Disputes with the Hostmen
The coal export trade from the Wear was slow to develop, but by the seventeenth century there was a thriving trade in exporting coal from the Durham coalfield via the River Wear. The tonnage however was much smaller than on the Tyne; in 1609, 11,648 tons were exported from the Wear compared with 239,000 tons exported from the Tyne. This imbalance changed dramatically during the English Civil War because of the Parliamentarian blockade of the Tyne and their encouragement of the Wearside merchants to make up for the subsequent shortfall in coal for London. Coal exports from the Wear increased by an enormous amount, causing a similar increase in the number of keelmen employed on the river. By time of the Restoration in 1660, trade on the Tyne had recovered, but the river was now only exporting a third more coal than the Wear.

Keelmen Expansion of the Wear coal trade
In 1699 the keelmen of Newcastle decided to build the Keelmen's Hospital, a charitable foundation for sick and aged keelmen and their families. The keelmen agreed to contribute one penny a tide from the wages of each keel's crew and Newcastle Corporation made land available in Sandgate. The hospital was completed in 1701 at a cost of £2,000. It consisted of fifty chambers giving onto a cloister enclosing a grass court. One matter of contention relating to the hospital was that the funds for its maintenance were kept in the control of the Hostmen, lest they be used as a strike fund by the keelmen. The hospital building still remains in City Road, Newcastle, and is now used for student accommodation.

Impressment in the Royal Navy
About 1750 a new development began to be used on the Tyne. New pits were being sunk further and further away from the river and coal was being brought to the riverbank via wagon ways. Once there, in places accessible by colliers, coal staithes were built to allow coal to be dropped directly into the holds of the colliers without the need for keels. The staithes were short piers that projected out over the river and allowed coal wagons to run on rails to the end. Colliers would moor alongside the end of the staithes and, initially, the coal from the wagons was emptied down chutes into the colliers' holds. Later, to avoid breakage of the coal, the coal wagons were lowered onto the decks of the colliers and were unloaded there. This was the beginning of the end for the keelmen and they realised the threat that the coal staithes posed. Strikes and riots resulted whenever new staithes were opened. In 1794 the Tyneside keelmen went on strike against the use of staithes for loading coal.

Coal staithes
Another threat to the livelihood of the keelmen was the development of steam tugs. During a ten-week strike by the keelmen of both Tyne and Wear against the use of coal staithes, the keel owners installed one of the newly developed steam locomotives in a keel equipped with paddle wheels. The keel was not only able to propel itself, but was able to tow a string of other keels behind it. By 1830, Marshall's shipyard in South Shields had begun to manufacture steam tugs, for the Tyne and for further afield. This development did not threaten the livelihood of the keelmen as completely as the development of the coal staithes.

Improvements in river navigation
By the mid-nineteenth century, less than a fifth of the pits on the Tyne and Wear were using keels to load coal. The introduction of coal staithes and steam tugs had already severely diminished the number of keelmen. The new docks with their efficient coal loading facilities brought the final demise of the keels and the men who worked them. The second half of the nineteenth century was a time of rapid industrial growth on Tyneside and Wearside, so that the keelmen would be readily absorbed within other industries. They are now just a distant memory with little to remind us of them, apart from the Keelmen's Hospital that still stands in Newcastle and the well known local song, "The Keel Row".

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